On Sunday, the NHL‘s free agent market opens its doors, and the bidding wars for the league’s best talent begins. Few teams have as many holes to fill and as much money to burn as the Washington Capitals, but what should fans of the team expect to see happen in the first few frenetic hours?
Chances are, not much. Or, at least, nothing that’s going to knock anyone’s moisture-wicking socks off. With the albatross that is Jaromir Jagr‘s nightmare of a contract still hanging over owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee‘s head, it’s unlikely that the organ-eye-zation will be willing to drop serious coin on any of the NHL’s premium free agents. In fact, GMGM has stated that he’s seeking to bolster the team’s forward corps through trades as opposed to free agency—-a wise move considering the long-term, $6 million-plus contracts that more highly coveted free agents such as Scott Gomez, Daniel Briere, and Chris Drury are likely to receive. But, with the team’s reluctance to part with top-tier prospects such as Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Eric Fehr, McPhee will have to try to entice other teams with the Caps’ abundance of second-tier prospects (Tomas Fleischmann, Sasha Pokulok, Patrick McNeill), struggling roster players who may benefit from a change in scenery (Brian Sutherby, Steve Eminger), spare parts (Ben Clymer, Matt Bradley), and the many future draft picks the team has stockpiled over the years.
Unfortunately, that’s not much to work with in terms of obtaining a Top 6 forward or two; as they say, “You’ve got to give something to get something.” And it doesn’t help that many such players currently have no-trade clauses that they aren’t likely to waive in order to play for one of the NHL’s worst teams. There’s been plenty of rumors suggesting that San Jose center Patrick Marleau, who has one more season left on his contract, could be on the move. On paper, at least, Marleau would appear to be a viable target for McPhee—-and certainly a welcome addition by Caps fans. According to the team’s message boards, however, Marleau wants absolutely nothing to do with the Caps. Can’t really blame him for that.
Truth be told—-regardless of whether he goes the free agency route or the trade route—-GMGM is going to have to overpay in order to address the team’s needs, unless he plans on picking up more waiver-wire trash. (Most Caps fans breathed a heavy sigh of relief when cheapskate McPhee chose not to pick up overpaid/underperforming defenseman and former Caps property Nick Boynton, whom the Phoenix Coyotes placed on waivers earlier this week.) Knowing McPhee’s reputation for constantly seeking a bargain and trying to make something out of another team’s garbage, here’s the names of a few forwards you might expect to see in one of those slick new Caps uniforms next season:
- Alexei Yashin: Along with a No. 1 defenseman to help the team’s young defensive corps grow as a unit, the Caps’ biggest need is a true first-line center who can feed the puck to (and keep up with) Alexander Ovechkin. Talent-wise, Yashin has all the tools: a great shot, playmaking ability, strength on the puck, and a snappy-looking turtleneck. And Yashin has displayed an instant chemistry with Ovechkin when they played alongside each other during international tournaments. Of course, the 6-foot-3, 225 lb., 33-year old—-who recently had the remaining four years of his ridiculous 10-year, $87.5 million contract bought out by the New York Islanders—-has earned himself a reputation as a lazy prima donna on the ice and a morale-destroying sourpuss in the locker room. The good news is that means, assuming he decides not to move back to Mother Russia, he’d come cheap—-likely in the $2 to $2.5 million range. If Yashin’s looking to straighten himself out and prove that he’s still among the NHL’s top players—-and, just maybe, Ovechkin’s infectious positive attitude rubs off on him—-this could be the answer for the team’s first line woes.
- Mike Comrie: Rumors about the 26-year-old Comrie coming to Washington have been making the e-rounds lately, but they’re usually met with only a few less groans from Caps fans than any speculation regarding Yashin. Sure, after being traded from Phoenix to the Ottawa Senators midway through the season, Comrie began to pick up his play. But, on a good team, Comrie is a second line center—-a spot currently project to be filled by the incoming Backstrom—-and not likely to provide the infusion of talent the team so desperately needs.
- Jason Blake: Now this is GMGM’s kind of guy. The 33-year-old Moorhead, Minn., native—-who is coming off of a career-best 40-goal season with the Islanders—-is a speedy forward, tireless forechecker, and feisty agitator who can play either wing. And, though he’s looking for a significant increase in his $1.5 million salary last season, he’s not likely to command top dollar for his services. At 5-foot-10, 180 lbs., however, Blake’s size—-and proneness to injury—-is certainly a drawback.
- Dainius Zubrus: Traded to the Buffalo Sabres for a draft pick and scrub Jiri Novotny (who was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Caps this offseason) at the trade deadline, Zubrus is coming off his second consecutive career-best campaign in a row. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be re-signed by the Sabres, however, and—-given his solid defensive play, ability to chip in points, and familiarity with the organization—-the Caps should think about welcoming Zubie back with open arms. Provided, of course, that he’s willing to shift back to right wing (where he belongs) and is willing to come down from his demand for a $3 million, five-year contract.
- Some Russian with the last name of Kozlov: Viktor, Vyacheslav (aka Slava), who cares? Both are 30-something Russian forwards who can play both center and wing, but are better suited to the wing position. The former has more size and strength; the latter has more playmaking ability and Stanley Cup rings. Either way, they’re both Russian—-so they’re bound to be a natural fit with Ovechkin, right?